Tuesday, 11 September 2018

From Phnom Penh to Kampot.

I left Banlung on a night bus which took forever to reach the Capital because of many unending stops. I arrived around 6 am on a rainy day and I was to look for my hostel. After refreshing, it was time to go wandering around the city.

Main roundabout in Phnom Penh.
Outside Wat Pho temple

First thing I visited was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This site was a former high school transformed into a prison from 1975-1979 under the Khmer Rouge Regime. In 1975, 2 million people were evacuated from Phnom Penh to do agricultural work in the villages and were introduced to Maoist and Marxist-Leninist ideology. The desire was to transform the country into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich, no poor, and no exploitation amongst the population. To achieve this, money was abolished along with free markets, private property, foreign clothing styles and religious practices. Schools, churches, Pagodas, universities , shops were shut or turned into prisons. The former penitentiary turned museum was the most important in the country, with 14, 000 prisoners during operation with only 12 surviving at the end of the genocide.

I also visited the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields where a huge number of people were executed. There are 20, 000 mass graves in which over 1.7M people killed during a four year period. When you walk through the fields, you can see some remains of the dead. The rain washes corpses to the surface with some clothes being visible from the ground in torture sites. By the end of this horror, Cambodia’s population was trimmed from 8 to nearly 6 million.

Tuol sleng genocide museum.

Killing tree where kids were executed in the killing field.

After having such a heavy day with sad history, I decided to go find something lighter to raise my spirits. I went to the Russian main market which literally sells everything. I bought a couple of souvenirs and some clothes. Later on I met some friends where we enjoyed a nice and cozy Japanese bar.
Chilling by the river.

Wat Pho Temple
Views of the city over Mekong river

My last day in the city was spent sightseeing some of the renowned spots. I visited the Wat Pho temple, a peaceful and serene spot with breathtaking history. The Independence Monument is lotus-shaped and was built to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It’s located in a round-about, so be careful about crossing to take photos as it’s extremely busy. I walked outside the Royal Palace but did not pay to enter as I had already seen the Grand Palace in Bangkok. When you travel on a budget, you have to be discerning with your expenses.

Public work out near the Mekong River.
My final moments were spent strolling alongside the Mekong River. The vibe here is really nice because there is a lot going on. There’s cafes, restaurants, bars, as well as people exercising with music in a public space. I just sat in one of the benches by the river as I read a bit and people watched. It was a nice way to end my last day in the capital.

Duran roundabout at night.

A street in Kampot.
Famous bridge in Kampot from the old city to the new one.

My final moments were spent strolling alongside the Mekong River. The vibe here is really nice because there is a lot going on. There’s cafes, restaurants, bars, as well as people exercising with music in a public space. I just sat in one of the benches by the river as I read a bit and people watched. It was a nice way to end my last day in the capital.

My last stop in Cambodia was Kampot. This is a very charming and quaint town with a touch of French colonial influence. It is very easy to walk around and the sunset by the river is so amazing. Its claim to fame is a high quality pepper and fish sauce which they export.

On my first day in Kampot, I arrived in the afternoon and checked into my hostel and proceeded with what I like to do most, walk around. There is a street food place which is very cheap. I had a quick lunch and then went on to sightsee. One side of the river has a great deal of colonial architecture surrounded by a number of delightful cafes and shops. After looking around I went by the river to chill and enjoy the sunset. Night time was for checking out the night market. Nearby was a big durian shaped round about which looks nice at night with light. I ate some food at the market and then walked around but most of the clothes sold here were more modern than the usual markets I was used to. Before I went to bed, I booked a day tour at the Bokor Mountain National Park for the following day.

Outside one of the coffee shops.
Coffee shop.

Sunset in Kampot upon Mekong River
We had a lot to see in just one day! It was very foggy in the morning, even when we soared above the clouds. The view of Kampot from the top was like a painting. Then we proceeded to discover Bokor Hill Station, a luxurious mountain top resort constructed in the early 1900’s which now serves as ghostly remnants of the past. There were a number of abandoned French colonial ruins as well as a big welcoming Buddha and a church which belonged to the King. During the rainy season a waterfall is located nearby with a towering pagoda that provides an extensive view of Mother Nature’s beauty.

Sitting in one of the former french colonial buildings.

Former french  ruins.

The abandoned former French Bokor hotel and Casino.

Above the clouds from the Pagoda.
The view of Vietnam over the lake.

We wrapped up the day looking for fireflies on the river but I think my expectations were too high. Only saw a small number of them but it was still special. Don’t forget the mosquito repellent for the boat ride. That was a wrap up for me in this town but there is more to see like majestic caves, a day tour to Kep, beautiful beaches, salt fields and bike rides if you fancy a leisurely stroll on two wheels.

Monday, 13 August 2018

An Insider's perspective on African Travel

 While I may run a tourism business, that does not mean that I do not enjoy playing the part of the tourist as well. I very much believe that to provide a quality experience to my customers, the best way for me to do that is by periodically putting myself in their shoes. I personally got bitten by the travel bug long ago and so, like many of my clients, am constantly looking for the next expedition. Unfortunately for Ugandans, visas for countries on other continents can often be expensive and hard to obtain. Given that fact, and also the added expense of traveling further afield, I resolved to see, at the very least, one new African country every year.
The hike was worth it.

African penguins

Drakensberg amphitheater is regarded as one of the most impressive cliff faces on earth.

Africa is the world’s second largest continent by both land and population and has no shortage of places to see and experience. There are a lot of different things to do when you arrive on the continent like gorilla trekking, mountain climbing, safaris, white water rafting, desert safaris, kayaking, swimming with dolphins and whale sharks, scuba diving, and sky diving. Just like any traveler, I want to experience the diversity of adventures which are available, and take it from an African that not all African countries are the same. Every nation you visit displays its own unique cultures, languages, and ways of life. In my most recent trips, I traveled through East and southern Africa, to the Seychelles, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and South Africa and felt just as much a foreigner (and just as much excitement) as someone from Europe or the US.. 
Dalol lake in Ethiopia
Salt Flats in Ethiopia.

The volcano is an amazing site.
Despite having given hundreds of tours and interacted with thousands of people from all over the world, I still find it interesting to hear the responses of clients when questioned about their conceptions prior to arriving. I continually hear comments such as “I thought it was like a desert”, “I didn’t know my iPhone would work here”, “People are dressed more modern than I expected”, “It feels safe here and people seem friendly”...etc. It is actually rare to encounter someone who is NOT surprised at what they find upon finally touching down. 
Colonial streets on Mozambique island

Floating on the Indian ocean- Paradise!

Empty quiet beach in Mozambique
  With all of that said, and while I may be somewhat biased, it is not an exaggeration to say that within Africa, Uganda continues to be one of the favorite destinations of travelers from around the globe. The people here are very friendly, and its capital Kampala ranks among the most inexpensive cities in the world. Additionally, our temperature remains relatively the same year-round, providing travel opportunities in all months. The vegetation is always lush and green, and there are always things to do.
Wild life in Tanzania.

Beautiful Usamabara mountains in Tanzania.

Kampala Walking Tours has the privilege to guide you on our customized journeys replete with knowledge and history. We offer a wide variety of activities to suit your interests with some of our offerings including: walking and cycling tours focused on the city, food, and entertainment, respectively; day treks to the equator, rhino sanctuary and the source of the Nile River; safaris in the wild; gorilla and chimpanzee spotting; white water rafting; and hiking trips. While my business is constantly evolving, our passion remains constant - to give you the most unforgettable experience in East Africa.
The mighty Gorilla- Photo by - Nils.

Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda- Photo by- Nils.

Fresh fruit and Vegetables on the continent.

This is not to downplay the challenges involved. Like any trip, before travelling, you should do your research for each country. For example, it is easier to move around Uganda because English is the official language and almost everyone speaks it. In Mozambique, on the other hand, you would do well to learn some basic phrases in Portuguese with the same going for Swahili in Tanzania, and Amharic in Ethiopia. While Africa in general is relatively cheap, good research will still save you money as we have tourist traps just like anywhere. For backpackers, there are myriad low-cost options with hostels and tent sites scattered throughout the continent. If you’re a hard-core adventurer, you can even rent or buy a motorbike and ride from South Africa to Kenya, as several of my clients have done. And of course, there are the more well-known group safaris which can be booked as a good way to share costs. Public transport is available in most countries, and you can always find cheap food in every place you go. 

A few things to remember when moving around Africa:

  • In most African countries, people don’t wear clothing that exposes the body, especially the legs, so it is usually more appropriate for men to wear long pants and women to wear something that falls below the knees 
  • Travelers should avoid carrying large amounts of cash, and try to make use of Visa cards as much as possible, as these are accepted in many towns and cities.
  • When taking photos of people, always ask their permission first. 
  • Make an effort to learn some basic local phrases as it shows respect and has the added benefit of helping you get better prices. 

Of course, as with many experiences, there is only so much you can learn from reading. At a certain point, you just have to take the plunge. So if you want to know what this wonderful continent is all about, turn off the TV, book your ticket, and come experience it for yourself. I look forward to seeing you!

Monday, 16 July 2018

Banlung - an off the beaten path gem.

If you’re in Cambodia and looking for a gorgeous, quaint, and relatively tourist- free location, have I got the place for you! Located in the Ratanakiri province in the northeastern part of the country, the capital of Banlung offers a welcome respite. There’s peace, a crater lake, and lovely sunsets.

Oh boy what sunsets! After chilling by the pool at the hostel I took in the sights from the bar. Later I took a walk in the small town (population 18k) to find something to eat for dinner but it was quite a challenge because English was not happening with menus strictly in Cambodian. I did my best by pointing to what others had on their plates and decided to let my eyes make the decision.

Gorgeous sunset.

The next day my travel mates and I decided to rent bikes for a sight-seeing adventure. It was a challenging ride with unpaved roads on dirt paths. We visited a Buddhist temple which revealed a great view from the top of the hill. From there, the spectacular Katieng Waterfall. It’s gorgeous as you experience the top of the flow with water flying down. You can also dip your feet in and it’s ideal for Instagram snaps.
Right before our adventure began.
At the temple grounds.

The view from the temple.
Katieng Waterfall.

Cha Ong was another beautiful waterfall that does allow swimming for a hot day. Bonus—a swinging bridge is nearby to take in a better view of the sights. The place is very green here with tress to keep you cool in the shade.
Cha Ong Waterfall.
The bridge above the river.

Right after lunch we went to visit the famous Lake Yeak Laom crater lake. Everything about it is gorgeous! So serene and beautiful. It occupies a 4, 000 year old volcanic crater with clear and pure water. We did swim here and took our time which was relaxing. There was a swinging rope used to dive in the lake which people seemed to be enjoying.

Lake Yeakom Laom.
Fun time.
My travel mates and I.
Taking in the view.
The next morning we went on a two day trek in the Ratanakiri jungle. It was a fabulous time, the guide was really enthusiastic. What a shame though seeing the lack of preservation to this ancient site—many distinguished and vintage redwoods were being chopped for the sake of housing. While discovering I had the pleasure of meeting some ants who got too personal and injected a stinging liquid in my skin. It hurt for a bit but wasn’t itchy. It seemed like my 'welcome to the jungle!' We trekked for about five hours and a lot was experienced on this day. We drank water from a piece of wood (called a water tree I believe). We stopped by the stream of water to have a packed lunch while we relaxed and sampled some wild bush seeds and sweet sugar cane. It felt great to breathe some fresh air. We continued on our way with the sounds of machines destroying nature from a distance.

Break during the trek.
Beautiful trees in the nature.
Having a drink from a piece of wood.

Upon reaching our destination for the evening we hung our hammocks and gazed upon the moonlight hovering over the redwoods. There was a stream of water to swim nearby or take a relaxing bath. Our guide made a fire while we brought some firewood. Our meal consisted of bamboo stick rice, chicken and veggies  that our guide had retrieved during the trek topped off with a glass of rice wine. The meal was placed on a fire and rotated from time to time to make sure it was evenly cooked.

Our view at the campsite.
Perfect for a good swim.
Hammocks hung for the night.
Our rice being cooked.
The guide scooping out the rice.
After dinner it was suggested we go hunt frogs which would later be served. We were in shock! He captured 7 of them and I saw the eighth one. Even though he asked me to catch it, I could not bring myself to do it. The frogs were placed in a bottle and sprinkled with salt. Our guide shook the contents and I wondered if the salt had killed them. He then got them out of the bottle, cleaned the insides, washed them and then they were deep fried to sleep with salt. Voila! Ready to eat. I was really nervous about trying them, I had to close my eyes, but wow! Delicious! We all ended up having a second frog. Sorry Kermit, but you were yummy.

Frogs being fried.
Frog ready to eat.
To eat the frog or not.

After breakfast, it was yet another day of trekking back to the starting point using another route. We came across beautiful views of the greenery that we didn’t see earlier. We ate some wild bananas on the way. These are interesting because they have big seeds in them. We made sure to take breaks whenever we could while we enjoyed mother nature. After about 6 hours, we made it back to the starting point and had some lunch. I highly recommend the tour, you learn so much!

Having a break on our way back.
Wild banana.
Our favourite cook.
Seeing how far I had come.
Banlung is not the easiest place to get to, but it’s well worth the wait. Enjoy mother nature in this beautiful Province of Ratanakiri.